In which I shadow a (really cool) reference librarian.

Her official job title is Director of Innovative Family Services and it may well be the best job ever. Margaret Portier is the name of this fortunate librarian. I’m the lucky library student who got to shadow her at the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) for three hours on Saturday as part of my IST 605: Reference and Information Literacy Services class.

Margaret Portier from the Fayetteville Free Library. Photo shared with permission.

During my observation, Margaret was nominally stationed at the library’s main Information desk, but assisting library members took us to several other areas of the library building, including a small, staff-only back office to reboot a server. The question-askers represented a range of ages and Margaret assisted them with everything from basic information (“Do you have this book?”) to more complicated technology issues (“Minecraft is lagging. Can you fix it?”) I could likely write a 10-page essay relating what I saw to the concepts I’m learning in class, but for this post I’ll limit myself to three areas:

Reference skills are customer service skills.
Although my textbook refers to them as reference skills, Margaret used what I – because of my retail background – call good customer service skills. She demonstrated approachability by making eye contact and smiling, greeting the library members (very often by name), and displaying relaxed but attentive body language. I witnessed examples of verbal acknowledgement (rephrasing what a person said to ensure understanding) as well as open questions meant to clarify the information being sought.

For example, a man wanted to find a book for his wife similar to one she had just read. Margaret began, before consulting a reference resource or dashing away to the shelves, by asking, “What about this [first] book did your wife like best?” Instead of making an assumption, she took pains to understand the user’s need more fully, and this was a perfect way to handle an imposed query. This may seem like a very basic skill in a simple transaction. You might take it for granted because it’s the sort of proficiency that’s not always noticeable until it’s absent. However, if you’ve ever felt frustrated by getting a not-quite-right answer, or suspected the person who’s “helping” you wasn’t paying attention to the specifics of your need, you quickly begin to value the good follow-up question.

Non-traditional reference: the coolest part.
Although Margaret does plenty of traditional reference, answering questions in-person at the Information Desk and over the phone, by far the most unusual (and fascinating) aspect of her job is her role as the library’s Minecraft specialist. In response to the needs of their tween/teen patrons, the FFL has installed MinecraftEdu (the classroom version of the popular game) on their server. Margaret has assumed responsibility for learning the ins and outs of the game from scratch (i.e. she didn’t come to the library an expert but learned it on the job) and serves as the players’ source of assistance in the library. She provides this help not only in person but also from within the game through the player chat feature.

MindcraftEdu image used with permission. TeacherGaming LLC 2015
MindcraftEdu image used with permission. TeacherGaming LLC 2015

Let me repeat: she is providing virtual reference services for library members through Minecraft as part of her job! [I don’t play Minecraft myself, but my nephews do, so I fully comprehend the marvelousness of this service.] I asked what reference resources she found most helpful for her non-traditional reference work and she pointed me towards the Minecraft Wiki and the MinecraftEdu Resources. However, she sometimes facilitates learning by connecting newer players who have questions with more experienced players who know how to get things done in the game. Minecraft wikis and local teens as reference resources? This is innovative librarianship!

They keep coming back.
We didn’t specifically discuss, at this shadowing session, how Margaret evaluates the reference services she provides. However, I took note of evidence that suggests library members value her assistance highly:

  1. At least 4 adult patrons made a beeline for her desk as soon as they walked into the library, and knew her by name. Previous good service clearly made them feel comfortable returning to her for future assistance.
  2. A woman looking for an audiobook recommendation went out of her way to tell me that “Margaret is great. She has never steered me wrong.”
  3. Margaret was the most popular person in the library with the Minecraft gamers. Granted, maybe it’s because they have no other choice of librarian with that specific knowledge, but I doubt it. It was obvious to me that the younger patrons had no hesitation about approaching her for help. She is clearly valuable to their library experience.

As you can tell, I enjoyed my Saturday morning at the main Information desk with Margaret. I’ll have the chance to shadow her for another three hours next month (at the desk in the teen space) and observe a one-on-one instruction session. In the meantime, I’ve signed up for a library card so I can use the computer lab, develop some Minecraft skills, and seriously impress my nephews. I also know which FFL librarian I’ll ask if I need help.

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